Lewis Hamilton won a thrilling Chinese Grand Prix on Sunday with a late race attack on Championship leader Sebastian Vettel.
The 2008 World Champion played a canny strategy to break Red Bull’s string of four consecutive victories – and to raise the stakes in the title hunt.
Cool Under Pressure
It was not all plain sailing for the McLaren man. Only moments prior to the start of the event, Hamilton’s pitcrew were scrambling around his car in the garage as a fuel overfill threatened to ruin the day before it had even started.
With Vettel on pole and the second McLaren of Jenson Button situated on the front row the grid, Hamilton was locked out from the front.
The first ray of light shun early on for Hamilton. As the red lights dimmed, Vettel bogged down and the McLaren pair – led by Button – slotted passed the pole man, despite the Red Bull driver vigorously attempting to hold off the silver duo.
Vettel very nearly even fell behind a somewhat revitalised Nico Rosberg in 4th place, although the Champion held off the Mercedes in a sturdy manner.
Behind Rosberg, the Ferrari’s swapped positions off the line with Felipe Massa jumping Fernando Alonso, as the Scuderia machines embarked on an early battle with Rosberg.
Vettel and Alonso were not the only pilots gobbled up at the start – both Sebastien Buemi (Toro Rosso) and Sergio Perez (Sauber) slipped down the order at the lights, with the pair falling to rear of the midfield, as they joined a tussle for position with the Williams’.
Buemi’s teammate, Jaime Alguersuari did have a better start; however once again the Toro Rosso displayed poor early race pace, with the Spaniard falling five places to 12th in his opening stint.
Alguersuari would stop early for a second set of tyres – only for his right rear to work its way loose after only a few corners. The 21-year-old carried on for just a few corners, before pulling to the side of the track, his day done. Understandably, the Spaniard was not amused:
“From quite early on I was struggling with grip from the rear tyres, so we decided to come in earlier than planned… immediately after leaving the pits, I felt the car was very unstable and then I lost a wheel nut and the wheel came off, so there was nothing I could do. After my best qualifying position I was hoping for better… but it was not to be.”
Getting Stuck In
Rosberg’s Mercedes teammate Michael Schumacher also found himself embroiled in an early battle for position.
Having lined-up on the seventh row, the seven-time World Champion bolted off the grid to assume 9th amongst the Force India’s of Paul di Resta (7th) and Adrian Sutil (8th), while Kamui Kobayashi in his Ferrari-powered Sauber stalked in 10th place.
Another low starting driver was Red Bull’s Mark Webber. While his teammate fought out front with the McLaren’s, an ill-considered qualifying strategy left the Australian mired in 18th place.
With a malfunctioning KERS unit and little else to lose, Red Bull placed the frustrated Webber on an alternate strategy, starting him on the hard Pirelli tyres. It would later prove to be an inspired decision, if something of a slow burning one at that.
Indeed, Webber’s first stint would only seem him climb to 15th with moves on Pastor Maldonado (start), Perez (lap 2) and Rubens Barrichello (lap 4), but as his tyres aged dramatically, so the Australian lose grip and positions. By the 11th tour, the Red Bull man had already changed to his second set of Pirelli’s – a decision that would define his race.
One driver that started a little too well was Hispania Racing’s Vitantonio Liuzzi. The Italian jumped the start, allowing him to fly passed the Lotus’ and the Virgin’s; however a seventh lap drive through penalty would ensure Liuzzi fell to the back once again.
The Simplest of Mistakes
Up front, the leading trio were also readying themselves for urgent pit work. Button, who times were beginning to drop slightly, still had both Hamilton and Vettel very much in his mirrors.
As the race leader readied for his stop, Vettel moved passed Hamilton, only for the reigning Champion to follow Button into the pitlane. Both McLaren and Red Bull mechanics lined the garages, yet in a moment of inexplicable brainfade, Button pulled momentarily into the Red Bull box, before being quickly ushered on by the red and blue coloured workers.
Whereas Vettel lost minimal time, Button’s lapse lost him precious time – and probably the Grand Prix itself. In the mix-up, Vettel jumped Button. Vettel couldn’t help, but be somewhat surprised at the error:
“It was a surprise that Jenson came into my garage in front of me – I hoped he would carry on. We had something similar two years ago with a Toro Rosso – I don’t know what attracts people to stop in our garage! Fortunately it had no effect and the guys kept their heads. We came out in the lead and tried hard to stay on two stops.”
When Hamilton stopped a lap later, the extra tour in ageing tyres relegated the 2008 World Champion behind the Vettel / Button battle.
Indeed Hamilton even lost out to Rosberg and Massa. The silver Mercedes crew received Rosberg early – very early in fact, with the German pitting on the 12th tour and Massa three laps later.
Alonso stayed out until lap 16, only to drop to 9th spot, behind Schumacher – it was a sweet development for the veteran, who had stopped on lap 11 to avail of a clearer road. For Alonso, he was playing a risky strategy that was not playing out as expected.
Unwilling to sit contented behind Schumacher, the unwavering Spaniard pushed the Mercedes man hard and Schumacher defended expertly, cutting Alonso off at every conceivable point without descending to blocking. For several laps, Alonso forced the issue, finally taking the position from the Mercedes pilot on the 25th lap.
All this gave Rosberg the lead of the race – a lead Rosberg handled beautifully. Despite the fact that Vettel was within distraction distance, the Mercedes never wavered and even held the Red Bull at a four-second gap for some time.
A strategy not coming to fruition was Nick Heidfeld’s. Having started down in 16th, the Renault pilot stayed out for a long stint to gain clear air and track position, only for his Pirelli’s to fall away quickly.
Having risen as high as 4th early on, Heidfeld began to lose out to the recent stoppers with first Vettel and Button getting by (lap 15) and then Massa and Hamilton one lap later. By the time Heidfeld received his pit in signal, Schumacher and Alonso had also forced their way by, leaving the Renault squad to rue their miscue.
Renault also kept their second driver, Vitaly Petrov on track for a long opening stint. The Russian started the race in 10th, but had reached 2nd by the time his tyre performance dropped off.
Petrov dived for new tyres on the 18th lap as it became clear his pace was disintegrating; Heidfeld did the same upon the next circulation. As a measure of how much time was lost, both dropped behind the determined Webber, as the Australian now knocked on the door of the top ten, with the still battling Sutil and Kobayashi ahead.
Playing the Tyre Game
Whereas the Renault’s were running long, Button was on a clear three-stopper. The former-Brawn pilot made for the pitlane on lap 25 – finding the correct box on this occasion – with Rosberg, Hamilton, Webber and Schumacher also stopping the following time around.
Vettel on the other hand stayed out until the 32nd lap as Red Bull attempted to make the two-stop strategy work, but with a further twenty-fours of the Shanghai circuit remaining, it would be a drastic gamble. It would hand the race lead to Massa, albeit it temporarily.
The Ferrari two-stop race was also beginning to unravel, although the degradation was more apparent for Alonso. Having wrung his Pirelli’s while battling with Schumacher, the Spaniard began to fall back dramatically – first losing 3rd to Rosberg (lap 28), before succumbing to Button (lap 29) and Hamilton (lap 30).
Eventually Alonso took new tyres on lap 33, with the slowing Massa one lap later, but with much of the race left, few were confident.
It was especially unfortunate for Massa – the Brazilian having looked firmly in control of his teammate for the first time since Hockenheim last year… Yet where Alonso emerged in 10th spot and into (yet another) battle with Petrov, Massa rejoined 5th ahead of the revitalised Schumacher.
Paul di Resta was another driver whose tyre strategy had gone awry. The Force India driver ran well in the early laps, before pitting on lap 12. The Scot had reached the top four, until his Pirelli’s lost the guts of their life, gifting positions.
A second stop on lap 33 would drop di Resta out of the points for a time; however the rookie made several elegant moves to prove once again that he is a talent for the future.
The Renault’s also fell down the order, after a brief return to the points – again led by Petrov. The French squad were clearly struggling on their two-stop strategy, leaving both Petrov and Heidfeld at the mercy of their competitors once their second set of tyres had “fallen off the cliff”.
Both Hamilton and Webber seemed impervious to the perils of degrading Pirelli rubber. Despite being on shorter stints, the pair pushed hard – very hard in fact – as Hamilton chased the lead and Webber some points.
Vettel’s stop had promoted Hamilton to 3rd behind Button (2nd) and Rosberg (leading) – unwilling to hang around and play nice, Hamilton took Button on lap 36, with a forceful move into the first turn, before pitting for the final time three laps later.
Button and Rosberg also committed to their last stops (laps 38 and 40, returning 5th and 3rd respectively) – with the final stages approaching, Vettel and Massa were beginning to feel the pain of failing rubber, while Rosberg, Hamilton and Button charged hard on their fresh sets.
After 40 laps, the top five were still only 7 seconds apart. In the background, the recently stopped Webber, now found himself 6th after dispatching Schumacher and Alonso and was also closing in on the leading group with haste.
After the disasters in Malaysia, Hamilton was now sensing Far East redemption. As the gap to Vettel shrunk ever more, Hamilton continued to push harder and harder.
Swift moves on Rosberg (lap 42) and Massa (lap 45) brought the 2008 World Champion to within sights of Vettel – this was now a straight fight for the race win. In a few short laps, the gap between pair lessoned – initially the gap was six seconds prior to passing Rosberg and Massa; but with the silver and red machines dispatched, that shortened to 3.4 seconds on the 46th lap, 1.6 seconds on lap 49 and barely half-a-second a single tour later. This was on.
Seeing his target just ahead with only six laps remaining, Lewis Hamilton attempted to force the issue into the turn 14 DRS section, but to no avail.
As the pair crossed the start / finish line to begin the next lap, Hamilton briefly looks to the inside of turn 1, as he had with Button several laps previously; yet Vettel – with no silver allegiances – fended the Briton off. He couldn’t do so for much longer and the game changing pass came on the 52nd lap.
With less than five laps to run, Hamilton pushed the struggling and desperate Vettel, letting the German run slightly off line in the flowing turn 7/8 section – it would be enough.
Seeing an opening – however brief – the McLaren driver ducked through taking the lead and the win. In Shanghai, Hamilton was peerless and this was a win that will be long remembered in the house of McLaren.
“It’s rare to have battles like the ones we saw today; you really had to think about the situation, and I loved that challenge, but having to overtake people made things so much sweeter. At the end, it was tough to get past Sebastian – even though he was getting slower, he never looked like getting out of shape. It was always going to be difficult to follow him onto the back straight, so I wanted to get him before then – I wasn’t expecting to overtake where I did, but I had the grip to keep ahead, and I made it stick.”
For Sebastian Vettel, 2nd place was as good as the Red Bull could manage. While there is no doubting the ultimate pace of the RB7, strategy let them down today.
“The middle stint should really have been a little longer, but at the end of the race I found myself out on the hard tyre and could see Lewis coming closer and closer. I tried to defend as best I could, without losing too much time to the guys behind, but he found his way past. It was a difficult race and we had a couple of mistakes, but we still finished second and third, which is a strong result.”
Shy of the front pair, Nico Rosberg, Felipe Massa and Jenson Button had their own little squabble for 3rd, but each had their own problems – Rosberg was found to be lean on fuel after pushing harder early in the race, Massa’s tyres were shot, while Button’s Pirelli’s were on the way out.
With both Rosberg and Massa were in dire straits, Button took both players to assume 3rd, but there was a further threat coming from behind as Mark Webber, too, continued to charge. The Australian scythed by Massa (lap 52), Rosberg two laps later, before securing the final podium spot on the penultimate lap, with a decisive move on Button.
It is with some irony that the two-stopper ultimate let Vettel down, Mark Webber’s three-stop strategy helped him to move from 18th to the podium.
“To see P17 on your board after 15 laps you think it might not happen, but suddenly I felt very comfortable with the car. I had a few sets of tyres left from qualifying, so that helped …it’s a back to back race and we haven’t had the smoothest run with my car, but I haven’t given up.”
Button may have disappointed to lose the 3rd spot, but an element of prevailed in the Rosberg / Massa camps, as both beat their more illustrious teammate.
Indeed Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher claimed 7th and 8th respectively, but while it is not a result that will suit the Spaniard, it was probably one of Schumacher’s finest races since his comeback. A good start for the veteran saw him push ahead of the Force India’s and enjoy a race long battle with Alonso – a battle that the Ferrari won by a mere 0.6 of-a-second; something that left the Mercedes pilot reasonably positive:
“We have made a big step forward with our car and it worked very well. We are heading towards the first race in Europe now and will bring some upgrades to Istanbul which should help us to improve even more. It is good to leave Asia with a positive feeling.”
Vitaly Petrov took two points for a 9th place finish ahead of Kamui Kobayashi. Both drove solid races, picking up 9th and 10th late on as Paul di Resta’s tyres fell away.
Indeed, it was a shame for di Resta who was looking good for 9th, until his Pirelli’s degraded too much; however the young Scot still did a good job, finishing ahead of Nick Heidfeld (12th), the anonymous Rubens Barrichello (13th) and Sebastien Buemi (14th), although the young Swiss driver will be disappointed with that result after starting on the fifth row.
Adrian Sutil fell down the order late on – he just pipped Lotus’ Heikki Kovalainen to 15th place, albeit one lap down.
Many of the battles ahead were clean and clear – unfortunately Sergio Perez could not guarantee the same courtesy to either Heidfeld or Sutil. The Mexican found himself battling outside the points as the race due to a close; initially clattering Heidfeld on lap 44 – an attempt that would earn Perez a drive through penalty. Three laps later, Perez hit Sutil in turn 2, gifting the Sauber a rarely seen stop / go penalty.
Following these, Perez finished 17th and a lap down, with Pastor Maldonado (18th) and Jarno Trulli (19th).
All the Virgins and Hispania’s finished two laps down, with Jerome d’Ambrosio (20th), Timo Glock (21st), Narain Karthikeyan (22nd) and Vitantonio Liuzzi (23rd) all having quite days.
It is a victory that bring Hamilton to within 21 points of the Championship lead, but these are still very early days.
Thus, the flyaways are complete. The next time Formula 1 sets up camp will be in Turkey during the start of May – and with teams more able to ship swift updates, it is where the real serious stuff starts.
(*Better late than never)
Race Rating: 4.5 out of 5
The Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai International Circuit, China; 56 laps; 305.066km; Weather: Sunny. Pos Driver Team Time 1. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1h36:58.226 2. Vettel Red Bull-Renault + 5.198 3. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 7.555 4. Button McLaren-Mercedes + 10.000 5. Rosberg Mercedes + 13.448 6. Massa Ferrari + 15.840 7. Alonso Ferrari + 30.622 8. Schumacher Mercedes + 31.206 9. Petrov Renault + 57.404 10. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 1:03.273 11. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 1:08.757 12. Heidfeld Renault + 1:12.739 13. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 1:30.189 14. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1:30.671 15. Sutil Force India-Mercedes + 1 lap 16. Kovalainen Lotus-Renault + 1 lap 17. Perez Sauber-Ferrari + 1 lap 18. Maldonado Williams-Cosworth + 1 lap 19. Trulli Lotus-Renault + 1 lap 20. D'Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth + 2 laps 21. Glock Virgin-Cosworth + 2 laps 22. Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth + 2 laps 23. Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth + 2 laps Fastest lap: Webber, 1:38.993 Not classified/retirements: Driver Team On lap Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 12 World Championship standings, round 3: Drivers: 1. Vettel 68 2. Hamilton 47 3. Button 38 4. Webber 37 5. Alonso 26 6. Massa 24 7. Petrov 17 8. Heidfeld 15 9. Rosberg 10 10. Kobayashi 7 11. Schumacher 6 12. Buemi 4 13. Di Resta 2 14. Sutil 2 World Championship standings, round 3: Constructors: 1. Red Bull-Renault 105 2. McLaren-Mercedes 85 3. Ferrari 50 4. Renault 32 5. Mercedes 16 6. Sauber-Ferrari 7 7. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 4 8. Force India-Mercedes 4